Assassin Barry (Bill Hader) is sent to Los Angeles to take down an actor who is sleeping with a mobster’s wife. He follows his target into an acting class taught by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) and decides to join. While Barry becomes keen to give up his life as a hit man and start a new life in the acting industry, his handler Fuches (Stephen Root) and the Chechens who sent him after the actor continue to drag him back into his old murderous life.
The premise seems bizarre enough to make this show work as a comedy and there’s enough crime involved to give it potential as a drama. In reality though, Barry doesn’t work as a comedy drama, or at least not in season one.
The first season is incredibly slow-paced and filled with nothingness. I kept waiting for the show to get properly started, but I continued to feel bored throughout the entire season and I didn’t get invested in any of the characters or storylines. It was difficult to spot the humour and I struggled to feel any excitement or suspense. And let’s face it, that’s not how it should be with a comedy drama.
It’s not that comedy and drama don’t mix well together anyway. It can make for great television when done right. Look at M*A*S*H, Breaking Bad, House M.D., Boston Legal…
M*A*S*H makes you laugh with one of Hawkeye’s witty remarks, but also makes you feel numb when Radar delivers the message that Colonel Blake’s plane was shot down. Breaking Bad can get away with something as absurd as Walter throwing a pizza on the roof, yet you also marvel at both Walter’s and Jesse’s mind-blowing character developments. House M.D. makes you chuckle at House’s sarcastic or childish comments, but also gifts you a damaged, self-destructive, drug-addicted, crippled, rude, highly intelligent anti-hero. Boston Legal causes you to giggle at Alan and Denny in flamingo costumes, but also moves you with Alan’s brilliant Alzheimer’s speech.
It’s all about balance and good writing, and Barry comes short of that (though less so in the second season, but more on that later).
There’s nothing wrong with the acting. Bill Hader is great (even his physical appearance (his eyes, eyebrows, and sideburns) is stereotypically perfect for a character who is both comical and menacing). Henry Winkler is great. Stephen Root is great. Sarah Goldberg is great. Anthony Carrigan is great. Everyone is great… But the story is often dull or nonsensical.
– Barry is suddenly into acting, even though he never dreamt of becoming an actor and he’s not particularly good at it. He was already sick of his life as a hit man and would’ve probably taken any opportunity to start over, and he just happened to walk into an acting class at that moment. So if his target hadn’t been an actor he’d followed into acting class, but instead a bartender he’d followed into the bar, he would have presumably pulled a Diane Chambers and randomly started working there. And that makes the entire basis of the show (assassin gives up dangerous lifestyle to become an actor) seem hollow. There’s nothing meaningful about it. It’s simply a thing that happens.
– NoHo Hank (one of the Chechens) goes from caring about Barry to wanting to kill Barry to caring about Barry and back again. It makes zero sense. I guess it’s supposed to be comedic and it would have worked in a slapstick parody starring Leslie Nielsen or Rowan Atkinson in which nothing really has to make sense and everything’s supposed to be absurd, but it doesn’t work in a comedy drama like this. In this kind of show it’s illogical and inconsistent storytelling. (Although I must give kudos to Anthony Carrigan for his portrayal of NoHo Hank, he does a splendid job).
– There’s a sudden jump near the end of the season showing Barry in a relationship with classmate Sally and they’re staying with their teacher Gene and his girlfriend Janice at Gene’s cabin. This came so out of nowhere that I genuinely thought it was a dream sequence at first. Because since when are Barry and Sally in an actual relationship? And since when are they this close to Gene that they’d be invited to stay at his cabin? Again, it makes no sense. It’s like the writers suddenly realised after all the slow-paced episodes that they were nearing the end of the season and had to fast forward because there was too little time to do it properly.
Now, what follows next is something of an interlude. When writing this review, I was reminded of other shows (like the above-mentioned Breaking Bad, Boston Legal, etc.) and before I knew it, I was going off on a tangent. I decided not to delete that piece of writing though, because it’s all in comparison to Barry and therefore it does add to my review, but I can understand if you could not care less about these comparisons to The Blacklist or The Good Place or anything else I ramble about in this next bit. So, by all means skip the interlude between the lines if you want to and go on to the part about Barry’s second season.
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What Barry needed in that first season was a David E. Kelley (Boston Legal, Big Little Lies) or a Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) at the wheel. Or even a Mike Schur (The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Parks and Recreation), because The Good Place may be “just a comedy”, but the writing is so magnificent and the entire story is so well-thought-out that it makes me wish the show was a physical thing I could hug and drool over. The Good Place manages to throw a plot twist in your face that’s so unexpected that it makes you feel utterly betrayed only to follow that up with an excellent redemption arc and then it also makes you facepalm at something as silly as the Jeremy Bearimy timeline of the afterlife. Schur is brilliant at what he does and he created a masterpiece. Any show could use a showrunner like him.
And Barry really, really needed better writing the first season because even though the acting in it is great, none of the actors have that kind of screen presence that lets them elevate the show and make the audience forgive the plot’s lack of substance.
Bill Hader and Henry Winkler are fantastic (and I genuinely adore Winkler and think he deserves an Emmy and an Oscar simply for existing), but they are no Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) or Hugh Laurie (House M.D.) who aren’t just great, but exceptional.
And they don’t have that X factor that James Spader has that allows a show to get away with poor storytelling. Spader stars in The Blacklist (a crime drama with light comedic touches, so in essence quite comparable to Barry) and the show has been suffering from poor writing for quite a while now. It had an outstanding first season, but it went downhill after that and it is now so bad that I’m at times absolutely infuriated at the writing and the direction the show is taking. Yet I’m still watching and I’m still majorly invested, and the main reason for that is that the lead character is played flawlessly by a positively magnetic Spader and I just can’t stop watching him shine in that role. He has that screen presence, that ability to carry a show entirely on his own if need be. If you don’t have an actor or actress like that, you’re gonna need to make sure the writing is what raises your show to a higher level. (But let’s be honest, the writing is the basis of a show and should always be on point. Some showrunners and writers are just lucky enough to have an actor or actress who can keep their sinking ship afloat when they’ve messed up the story).
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Sorry for the rambling, on to season two of Barry. And what a breath of fresh air it is. Storylines are interesting, characters are more developed, and the comedy is amusing. The show picks up the pace and is finally about something.
I enjoyed the storylines of Fuches, Barry, and the cop (Janice’s colleague John), Gene reconnecting with his son, and Sally’s play about her violent ex-husband. And the heartfelt conversation between Barry and Gene is one of the best moments in the entire show.
The slapstick comedy in this season also actually works. Fuches and his superglue even made me laugh out loud at the show for the first time. Although at times they took the comedy too far and it became over the top.
If you watch Jenna Marbles on YouTube, you may have heard her talk about her “too much gene” (when she’s abstract painting she doesn’t know when to stop and instead of making her already beautiful painting more beautiful she ends up ruining it because her “too much gene” makes her keep adding paint). And the “too much gene” is at play in the case of the animalistic taekwondo girl in the fifth episode (also the episode with the superglue). It makes for ridiculous and cringeworthy scenes. They should’ve only had the fight between Barry and the taekwondo guy, but instead they added the girl and ruined everything. Too bad.
So, the final verdict. Barry definitely has its flaws, but it improved in the second season. In fact, it improved that much that I actually want to watch the third season.
I still disagree with all the high praise this show has been getting (it is rated 8,3/10 on IMDb and you have to search hard to find a (semi-)bad review), but the second season was good enough for me to rate the show 6/10.
I would give the first season 2.5 out of 5 stars, the second season 3.5 out of 5 stars, and the overall show 3 out of 5 stars.